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Forza Horizon 4’s online play is confusing and confining, but still worth the ride

We check out Playground’s multiplayer modes

Forza Horizon 4
Forza Horizon 4

As I wrote in my review of Forza Horizon 4, this is a beautiful driving game from a developer that understands the physics of automobiles and the emotional energy of throwing cars around an open world. But at the time of the review’s publication — a few days prior to the game’s launch, when its servers had not been populated — I hadn’t played online, something I’ve rectified over the past few days. Now that I’ve spent some time racing real people, my feelings about online play are mixed.

Playground Games has certainly created a gaming environment that favors online play, but which allows players to inhabit this multiplayer world without being forced to interact with other people. Even if you’re into solo play, keeping online open doesn’t have a downside. Driving around the countryside, I come across other people as they zoom around, doing their own thing. In open play, they are ghosted, so we can literally zip right through one another and be on our way. I enjoy this sense of being in a communal place, while also being in my own world.

By far, the most efficient way to play against others is by joining a “Team Adventure,” which is a series of a handful of races between Team Red and Team Blue, made up of random players, or a group of friends.

Team Adventure races cover the same diversity of race styles as the single-player game, including road races, cross-country and dirt racing. The entire world is based on week-long seasons (summer, winter, etc.) each with their own special events and challenges. Some team races step outside the current season, which add a little to the variety on offer. The seasons mostly differ at a visual level — a little more mud and water in autumn and spring — and driving conditions during winter change considerably.

Points are gained by winning races or just by driving faster than players on the other side. It’s designed to create on-the-fly rivalries, much like in shooting games. But it’s not ideal if you’re the sort of person who prefers to compete without the bother of teammates. Another problem is ally drop-off. Playground makes it hard to quit these adventures midway through, but I saw a lot of players leaving when the going got tough.

Forza Horizon 4 — offroad vehicles with lights blazing drive through a rugged forest
Forza Horizon 4
Image: Playground Games/Xbox Game Studios

These online contests also extend to arena games, such as capture the flag and zombies vs survivors, which mainly entail crashing into others, or swerving attempts to be crashed into. I find these mildly diverting for a short period of time, but really not interesting enough to take me away from driving the world and taking part in real races.

Forza Horizon 4 also throws mini-parties called Forzathon Live in which drivers are exhorted by radio DJs to come together to complete joint quests, such as racking up huge skills points by performing tons of slides. Again, this feels like a novelty that can only offer long-term appeal to the small numbers of players who are attracted by the event’s specific currency, which unlocks rare cars and other goodies. It’s worth stating that there is no shortage of cars in this game, and few barriers to accruing a large collection.

There are PvP options for every race that you unlock on the map, where you can also play against AIs, or cooperatively. But these tend not to attract large numbers of real life competitors, at least in my experience. Most of the races I organized were between two or three random players, which really isn’t much fun. It feels like these specific races will best be organized among friends. Indeed, the importance placed on team-based leagues suggests how far Playground is banking on players organizing their own squads, and playing with people they known in real life, or have befriended via the game.

Players can also create their own “Blueprint” races based on specific conditions. I created an ‘80s themed race in heavy snow in the Scottish Highlands. But it was based on a route already in the game; an actual route-builder is promised at some point down the line.

One mode I do enjoy is “Rivals” in which I race ghosted real people at ever-more difficult levels. It’s always been a neat way to practice routes, improving times for real races, which tend to include the usual mixture of tough-to-beat pros and numbskulls who think they’re at the bumper car rink. Best to leave those drivers behind at the earliest opportunity, preferably the first turn. It always amazes me how many people crash within ten seconds of a race beginning.

It’s worth mentioning that although these worlds are based on 72-person servers, I have yet to play in one that gets close to that number.

Forza Horizon 4 is essentially an MMO, and one that’s just launched. So it can reasonably be classified as a work-in-progress. I found the online modes frequently confusing and less impressive than the core game, reflecting perhaps the significant challenge of creating a live car racing world. But still, this remains an excellent driving game that’s well worth your attention. I’m playing the game often, and enjoying myself. It feels like the sort of thing I’ll come back to often. With this in mind, I’m adding a Polygon Recommends badge to our original review.

Forza Horizon 4 is out now on Windows PC and Xbox One. It’s also available as part of Microsoft’s Netflix-like Xbox Game Pass service, which costs $9.99 a month.

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